Matt Cooke -- 198 hits in 2007-08 was 14th in the NHL
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Look at most of Matt Cooke's statistics, and you won't find anything special.
Certainly not much that suggests he would be in line for the kind of contract -- two years, with an annual salary of $1.2 million -- he accepted from the Penguins yesterday.
But peel away the bulk of Cooke's numbers, the 10 goals and 13 assists and 91 penalty minutes he accumulated in 78 games with Vancouver and Washington, and one figure stands out: The 198 hits that placed Cooke 14th in the NHL (and ninth among forwards) last season.
And even though that total doesn't express how, every now and then, he's capable of throwing a check that not only attracts attention from the other team, but from seismologists.
"He'll have eight or 10 hits a year where he'll just lay guys out," general manager Ray Shero said.
Cooke, a 29-year-old left winger who is 5 feet 11, 205 pounds, was brought in primarily because the Penguins lost Jarkko Ruutu to Ottawa via free agency last week.
While Cooke is not a clone of Ruutu -- Cooke is faster, Ruutu a bit less predictable on the ice -- when Ruutu departed, Cooke was a logical candidate to succeed him as agitator-in-chief.
The Penguins downplayed their interest in him publicly, but that wasn't the case during strategy sessions between Shero and his staff.
"With Ruutu leaving, there was a hole for that type of player," Shero said. "Cooke is a guy who's always been on my radar. I've always liked the way he played.
"We talked quite a bit about Cooke, internally. There weren't a lot of guys who play that style. That was a guy near the top of our list, if not at the top."
Although the Penguins have pretty much exhausted the list of players they targeted to bring in, they still have not finalized a contract with free agent Janne Pesonen, a 26-year-old left winger.
Wrapping up his one-year, two-way deal is nothing more than a formality, however, and Pesonen, the leading scoring in Finland's SM-Liga in 2007-08, could officially join the organization by today.
The Penguins scouted Pesonen, a ninth-round draft choice by Anaheim in 2004, at length this winter, and seem cautiously optimistic he'll be able to adjust to North American hockey, despite being 5 feet 11, 179 pounds.
And because he will earn a reduced salary if he plays in the American Hockey League, Pesonen represents "minimal risk, and maybe a little upside," as one member of the front office put it.
Getting Pesonen's deal done apparently will be the Penguins' last personnel move for a while. Shero and his staff obviously have to be prepared to react to any opportunity that comes their way, but aren't aggressively looking to bring in more players.
"I think at this point, we're happy where we are," Shero said. "We'll see what shakes out. We're not actually pursuing anything at this point. You never say never, but right now, we've got a pretty good NHL forward group, I believe, pretty well-balanced."
"Well-balanced" isn't a term many people, particularly opponents, apply to Ruutu when he's on the ice -- he has a rare gift for distracting and infuriating opposing players -- and he teamed up with Cooke to enrage more than a few guys when they were teammates with the Canucks.
Indeed, when Shero, who was assistant general manager in Nashville before joining the Penguins in 2006, was asked whether he found Ruutu or Cooke to be more exasperating when the Predators faced the Canucks, he responded simply, "That's a tough one."
Ruutu is highly effective at his job, and is as respected and appreciated by teammates as he is despised by opponents. Nonetheless, the Penguins might get a bit more mileage out of Cooke, who is more versatile and could step directly into the penalty-killing rotation, something Ruutu did only sporadically.
But mostly, he can be a pain to opponents.
The Penguins lost a lot of toughness and muscle during the past week or so -- in addition to Ruutu, the likes of Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts have moved on -- and Cooke will be counted on to make games against the Penguins an unpleasant experience for opponents.
NOTES -- Cooke took a pay cut when he joined the Penguins. He made $1,525,000 last season. ... The Penguins have discussed a new contract with forward Jeff Taffe, but he likely will have to accept a two-way deal to return.